I can still remember the first story I ever wrote, when I was maybe eight or nine years old, on school notebook paper in what was then my fairly neat, legible handwriting. I think it may also have been illustrated. Perhaps because, back in my day, we still wrote high-school English papers by hand (I had a word processor in college but didn’t get my first computer until graduate school — and yes, that does make me feel old), I still often write out scenes by hand. I find writing longhand especially helpful when writing a first draft, or when polishing a close-to-final one. I’ve always loved what Natalie Goldberg says about writing by hand: “Arm connected to shoulder, chest, heart.”
But I do remember taking both computer and typing classes (on actual typewriters). And these days, nothing makes you feel quite as old as admitting you used to write by typewriter. Often, while visiting the Seattle Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, I would hear people younger than me wondering what this odd sculpture is:
(Note to young people: It’s a typewriter eraser. We use to employ these to get rid of typos before we had backspace buttons and the delete key.)
Eventually, the keyboard took the place of the pen and the notebook in my academic life, and even in my writing life. But not for long: I always continued to write by hand, whether taking notes during an interview or scrawling out an outline. And now I use some combination of the two.
Many writers are particular, even superstitious, about the way they get their words on the page. I enjoyed discovering this site featuring Authors A-Z, “an ongoing project featuring the lives, works, and typewriters of the most outstanding authors around the world.” Here, you’ll find out that Harper Lee wrote on an Underwood portable. That Joseph Heller used an SCM Smith Corona Electra. That even Joyce Carol Oates has rejected the computer: She writes in longhand, then types her notes into scenes using “a Japanese made Swintec 1000 electronic typewriter with ‘a little memory’ but no screen.”
And if you’re interested in owning a piece of these antiques, here’s even an (expensive) online store where you can browse old typewriters and jewelry made of their keys. (Check out eBay and flea markets, too.) Over the last few years, my husband and I have been picking up typewriters here and there (we have three Underwoods and and have recently added a Remington), and will probably keep adding to the collection, at least until we run out of space. Only one of ours is in any sort of working condition, but that’s not why we bought them. Even bent and broken, with sticky keys and dried-out ribbon, we think they’re pretty cool — maybe because they always look as if they’re smiling.